“For any writer who wants to keep a journal,” May Sarton once said in an interview, “be alive to everything, not just your feelings.” This advice is important not only for those who wish to undertake any form of writing, but for any form of truly living: Be alive to everything. But wow does one begin to form the awareness to the world around us?
I believe that one begins when they accept the invitation to presence that the world offers us. The question is: Are we willing to accept that invitation?
As a child, I discovered that the best companions for discovering to undertaking this delightful task were: books, solitude and nature. One of the most magical places my mother ever introduced me to was the local library. It was astounding to me that we could go there every week, I could browse and discover new books among all the books that were on the shelves and that I could check them out. Books introduced me to thinking and considering and exploring.
One of those first books that ever made me begin to wonder was one by Margaret Wise Brown. Most people know Margaret Wise Brown for her books Goodnight Moon or Runaway Bunny, but one of my most cherished books by her is a lesser known one called The Quiet Noisy Book. When I mention it, very few know what I’m talking about, yet it was one of those books that first opened me up to listening. Throughout this book, Brown invites ust to listen to noises (such as an alarm clock) to the silent (a butterfly’s wings). It’s a gorgeous meditation on sound and silence. It made me aware, for the first time as a child, in being able to listen closely to both. This illustrated kids book is one that many adults needs to discover and heed its wisdom.
She, along with writers like E.B. White or Ruth Krauss with Maurice Sendak’s illustrations or A.A. Milne’s Pooh books, made me aware of nature and my connection to them. They made me want to spend more time in the woods behind our house. These authors and their books started me on the path of observation. This means keen observation of both the inner and outer worlds. One begins with the inner world of ourselves. It means looking more closely, as if inspecting one’s thoughts and real self as if through a magnifying glass.
To enter one’s own inner landscape, one needs solitude. In her journals, Susan Sontag wrote, “I want to be able to be alone, to find it nourishing – not just a waiting.” Solitude is nourishing to the self. Some might think solitude is loneliness, but it isn’t. There is a richness one can only reach when one spends any significant amount of time in solitude. This, however, does not mean it’s easy. “I can tell you that solitude is not all exultation,” May Sarton wrote, “inner space where the soul breathes and work can be done. Solitude exposes the nerve, raises up ghosts. The past, never at rest, flows through it.”
Solitude allows us to wrestle with that which is deep within us, that we often try to suppress or ignore. Solitude forces us to grapple with our inner selves, our true selves, both the good and the bad. Solitude means we have to stop our hectic, scheduled life and pause, reflect and pay attention. If we cannot pay attention to our inner world, we will never be truly able to pay attention to our outer one. Solitude offers us reflection and contemplation. When we learn attention and awareness, we are more in tune with ourselves (both our hurts and our joys) and we become aware of others. Returning to Sontag, she says, “Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.”
When we learn to pay attention, we discover the wealth that can be found in our daily lives. Artists like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce learned this and they were able to take an ordinary day in the life of a character (Mrs. Dalloway or Leopold Bloom) and turn it into something extraordinary. When one reads Mrs. Dalloway or Ulysses, one is transported into and transformed by the rich, inner depths these novelists mine from the lives of two imagined characters. How many of us are willing to make the marvelous out of the mundane by revealing the transcendence of our commonplace existences? It is there if only we are brave enough to give it our undivided attention, if only for twenty to thirty minutes each day.
Last, is nature. Like solitude, nature allows me to both clear all unnecessary thoughts and find what is truly nourishing and healing. When I take my walks in nature, I find that I become oriented to the rhythms of nature and I become disoriented when I leave nature to return to what we have falsely named the “real world.”
I walk the same paths more times than I can recall and I have left those same paths even more to explore what lies beyond them: mossy rocks near streams that I can touch their softness with my fingers or I can take off my sneakers and socks to slip my feet into the cool waters of the stream. I breathe in more deeply and begin to allow my internal world to reflect the external landscape that I’m in. I watch dragonflies darting about or a butterfly weaving about in the sky or see a small fish dart to hide under the dark overhang of the bank by the stream.
When I go on these walks, I tend to carry a small notebook and my camera to record the delightful and free surprises the world offers if I just allow myself to be present to them. Wonders such as the red-tailed hawk with a snake in its beak landing on a limb just above me. Or watching the heron still and silent as a Buddhist monk in the pond murky with green algae. While I bring my notebook and my camera, I never bring my iPod, which would distract me from natural sounds. Though I find myself, in such moments, humming James Taylor’s “Secret O’ Life” with its lyric, “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.”
I have also begun to study books on nature so that I can learn the lexicon of the landscape to better understand what it is I am looking at, to do, as John Muir suggested, and “get as near to the hear of the world as I can.” I am beginning to have the words to make the connections of the architecture of our world and to better grasp my relationship to it.
“Having words for these forms,” writes Robin Wall Kimmerer in her beautiful and profound book Gathering Mosses, “makes the differences between them so much more obvious. With words are your disposal, you can see more clearly. Finding the words is another step to learning to see.”
Language gives me an intimacy with nature that allows me to be more deeply invested and concerned with its welfare. It trains me to be a better steward of the gifts that nature offers.
Nature, like meditation, is teaching me to be a better listener, to be less distracted. Even when I am at home, I am more aware of the life that is about me. As I washed dishes in the sink, I watched from my kitchen window as squirrels played about in our backyard, resembling a Beatrix Potter illustration.
Nature has shown me that it is important to risk curiosity and wonder. To take spontaneous delight in being alive because being alive is more than simply breathing air. As the poet e. e. cummings wisely understood, “Unbeing dead isn’t being alive.”
No, I am discovering that when I let my heart catch fire by the life I can lead then I am going to fan the flames by embracing the beauty and the mystery of it all. It teaches me how to express gratitude and appreciation by the sacred life that is both within me and around me. This world is meant for us to wonder and to wander in if we would only just take the time to do it.